- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

The U.S. Botanic Garden sits nobly, quietly at the foot of the Capitol grounds like a serene gray cat. A cold drizzle shrouds its tall glass turrets in mist this early spring Saturday. A rogue seagull circles, disappears. Hooded students, looking for something sexier, slosh by toward the Capitol building or the Smithsonian, singing rap songs, unaware that paradise lies before them.
Inside the Conservatory it is bright, humid, and crammed with people. Using mysterious solar wizardry, the cathedral-like glass ceiling transforms the gray glare into surprising radiance. Jackets are shed, hair is shaken out, smiles appear.
Forget about gardens being only for blue-haired green thumbs; here men, women, and children of all ages and races are mingling. No group speaks the same language. Every group carries a camera.
The main Garden Court is more Caribbean than Washington. Long, twin fountains gurgle over sky- and sea-blue tiles, and toddlers crouch and flick at the crystal water. Peaceful piano music plinks in the background, interspersed with frog and bird calls. Luscious fruit dangles from banana, fig, and kumquat trees. Straw animals peek out from behind the multitude of fronds, ferns, and flowers happily cohabiting in exotic displays such as the "Jungle," the "Garden Primeval," and the "Oasis."
"I don't think we realized how attached people are to this place," says executive director Holly Shimizu. "We feel so motivated to get people to come experience it."
The U.S. Botanic Garden is not your garden-variety botanic garden. "We are a living-plant museum," says Mrs. Shimizu. Encasing some 26,000 plants, the garden serves as an exhibition, and an educational and research facility.
The Conservatory, which essentially is the garden, reopened to the public last Dec. 11 after four years of renovations. The limestone exterior remained unchanged, but elements like the glazing system, fountains, floors and environmental-control systems are all restored or new. Computers monitor the temperature, misting, and shading. The result is not a greenhouse but a state-of-the-art biosphere.
The garden was to reopen last November but was delayed by the anthrax scare. The Conservatory, only yards from the Capitol Building and, more importantly, having received no mail while closed was used for six weeks by government and law enforcement officials as the anthrax-control center.
"We managed to work around them," laughs gardener Wally Reed. "We still had our job to do to get the plants ready."
It was just the latest setback in establishing a permanent national botanic garden. Although several facilities were constructed around Washington during the last two centuries, they were either in areas that were too swampy or were too small. The garden, one of the oldest in the country, has been located at First Street and Maryland Avenue SW since 1933. Bartholdi Park and an outdoor garden display area lie across Independence Avenue. A new, six-acre greenhouse in Anacostia serves as a support facility.
Billed as an "Eden on the Mall," an adjacent, three-acre National Garden is due to open in 2004 along Independence Avenue, complete with a butterfly garden, a first ladies water garden, an environmental-learning center and a rose garden.
But people aren't waiting. The Garden has been packed since it reopened.
"It's spectacular. I've been here several times," says Washington architect Harry Falconer. "It's a perfect place to go on a damp day." A team of children in red "Head Start" T-shirts files by two by two, holding hands. "It's such a great place for kids," Mr. Falconer continues. "They've probably never seen desert plants and palm trees before."
Mrs. Shimizu is a woman who loves her job. Blonde, dark-eyed and smiling, she strides proudly through the displays, waving her hands toward this plant and that, and greeting every volunteer by name. The walkways are narrow due to lush growth; her blue skirt swishes over the pink and purple confetti of blooms. She reaches up to tug a leaf from a tree, breaks and rubs it in her hands to demonstrate its scent.
"Isn't that wonderful? It's allspice. I love showing people where these spices come from."
She also loves the renovations. "We are a new botanic garden. And everything is designed not only with the plants' needs in mind but also the most beautiful use of color and texture."
She knows the garden better than anyone, having spent eight years as its assistant executive director and chief horticulturist. Now she runs it as well as lecturing, writing, and serving as a commentator on the long-running PBS show "Victory Garden."

The pepper-scented Medicinal Garden, where centuries-old healing herbs are grown, is Mrs. Shimizu's specialty. These plants are not the most attractive, but they may be the most significant.
"This 'Happy Tree,' " she says, pointing to a broad, scruffy little bush that only she and Charlie Brown could love, "is used in fighting ovarian cancer and has saved thousands of lives." This is Camptotheca acuminata, a member of the sourgum family and native to China and Tibet, where it is known as "xi shu."
Nearby are other plants with curious names, like the "Sausage Tree" (Kigelia pinnata from Africa, a member of the Bignonia family whose fruit looks much like a dangling sausage) and the "Mint-Leaved Lion's Ear" (Leonotis leonurus), which is native to South Africa and is used medicinally to treat snakebite, tapeworm and skin diseases. Right beside them are plants whose byproducts you can find in your own medicine cabinet such as jojoba (Simmondoia chinensis), a small woody shrub whose oil forms the base of many cosmetics.
The air thickens with moisture, and the orchids appear bold and gorgeous but vulnerable, the botanical world's Julia Roberts. They are displayed as they would be in their natural settings, clinging to trees and reaching from rocks, even hanging overhead like fragrant fireworks. "Every time I come in here I am still astonished by the beauty," Mrs. Shimizu says.
In the center of the building stands the Jungle, once known as the Palm House. It features tropical trees with their succulent, emerald fans of leaves, as well as low little torches of color like the pink integrity, or the gold-and-green striated leaves of the peacock plant. Waterfalls descend into rippling ponds. A bridge shaped like a hollowed-out log leads beneath foliage where light breaks through from overhead, forming rainbows in the mist. A chameleon, one of many predators released to naturally control pests, snoozes in a sunbeam at the tip-top of a palm tree. "We don't rely on chemicals here," says Mrs. Shimizu.
Other displays vary from the arid, beige Desert, where saguaros stretch their arms, to the fuzzy mosses and flat ferns of the Garden Primeval, whose species are thousands of years old. the Rare and Endangered Plants area is intended to keep other plants around just as long. Meanwhile, the Meditation and Children's gardens, nearly complete, teem with builders.
Raj Deshpande and his family are visiting from Atlanta. Daughter Pooja, 8, is delighted. "I really, really love the Botanic Garden. I'm writing a report on it for school."
Mr. Deshpande is happy that his daughter can connect with his homeland. "I like the fact that I can show her plants like the banana flower. It is cooked as a curry in India."
Pooja, however, is more interested in something else. "They have starfruit here. I love starfruit."
Delight such as Pooja's is precisely what Mrs. Shimizu has been hoping for.
"I want visitors to get the full experience here," she says, "not just the plants, but the scent, the sound of the water, the feel of the leaves. It appeals to all the senses."


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